Friday, April 14, 2017

A Clumsy Good Friday

So how are you supposed to "do" Good Friday properly?

I'm Catholic so I have a wealth of prescribed devotional practices ready to go: no meat today, one full meal, Stations of the cross, acts of sacrifice and penance...

...they're all good and they all "work" but lately this is what I've been doing.

I just think of how I handled the deaths of the people I love the most and I kind of go from there.

So so how does Jesus fit into that?

I believe that the historical figure of Jesus was the actual Son of God. I believe that He was the Almighty reaching into His creation and working with us directly. The stuff He taught is how I try to live my life. Some of it throws me into a paradox loop and I get confused. All of it strikes this chord that I honestly believe is the resonance point of being and existence. It just hits this frequency like that note that can shatter glass.

With that, I feel very close to Him (as do about 2 billion other Christians). I feel that in Him I know and am known by God. My "relationship" with Him isn't like my relationship to my family so conversations seem a little one sided until these moments where my own awareness and my known-ness is very powerful that it takes me out of regular life. Devotional practices might enhance it but there's a point where can distract me a little too. It's like all of those prayers and devotions serve to draw you into they mystery and aren't ends to themselves but can draw you back in when you get lazy or lost.

But Good Fridays are a bit different than remembering the death days of people I've loved. The latter is always weird and morbid and I honestly don't even like to do that anymore. With Good Friday I already know the ending. It's part of the basic statements of belief recited by Christians for centuries: "on the third day He rose again from the dead".

So on Good Friday I mourn something that I know will be okay. Maybe it seems weird but it's basically the plot of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John's Gospel. Jesus knows Lazarus is dead, knows that He is going to bring him back to life, and yet goes to His tomb in sadness, agitation, and tears. Then He raises Lazarus from the dead.

But I'm not just entering a time of symbolic mourning. I'm also reflecting on the depth of a sacrifice made on my behalf. And like most kinds of important things that have been done for me, I want to find a way to say thanks or sorry or both. So I'm either left doing something prescribed or try to put it in my own words or express it my own kind of way (which, no matter how you slice it, will probably be a little hamhanded, much like a marriage proposal or asking someone to be in a band...scripted or not it's almost best to just go for it and not overthink it).

So, how do I "do" Good Friday?

I think of getting the bad news of a loved one's death. You can sit and think about it and just sort of exist until you have to make plans. Mourning for someone who is a close family member might mean funeral plans and taking your suit to the dry cleaners. But what if someone is taking care of that stuff? Do you go to work? Is it inappropriate to put a movie on? What if you're really bummed out and it helps to get your mind off of things?

Do you say special prescribed prayers for them? What if you don't feel up for it? Can you just make things up in your head?

And if you believe you still have that connection with that loves one after death? Do you talk to them all rosy and piously? Or do you keep the conversation going like before? Or are you just talking to yourself?

A note on how the Apostles dealt with Jesus from His crucifixion onward:

A lot of people who comment on such things point out the strangeness on the response of Jesus' disciples to Him after the Resurrection: "they worshipped but some of them doubted". I think that's a perfectly reasonable response to something so inexplicable: your friend died and was buried but is alive again now and He's God. They based their whole lives on the experience of Jesus rising from the dead so clearly they weren't conflicted on the reality of it. But it's a bit much to sit with and make sense of.

...

For me, Good Friday won't seem be utterly different than coping with any other profound tragedy as a parent:

-my kids will get up
-I'll feed them
-I'll try to explain how important the day is
-they'll want to watch tv
-they'll fight over what to watch
-I'll contemplate whether or not I should even let them watch anything at all because it's Good Friday
-I'll remember that they're still little and might compromise by having them watch the Miracle Maker or something
-I might have to switch to Thor if that goes badly
-I'll do some work
-I'll reflect on God's great love for me
-I'll make lunch
-tbd

Hopefully I'm living in gratitude and with the awareness of all that God has done for me and my family, finding solace in knowing that His willingness to suffer is an expression of solidarity with my own suffering, and who transforms all death and suffering in reconciling the world to Himself. There's truth and peace and purpose just a few days from any cross and the Good Fridays of this life are there to remind us to hang on just a little while longer.

The 1989 Batman.

There is so much that the 1989 Batman gets right that in a glut of quarterly-released comic book-related movies it almost seems dated and quaint.

I guess I have a couple of nitpicks like the fact that the city scenes occupy the same city block throughout the movie: Monarch Theatre, City Hall, a storefront simply titled "Hotel", the Museum...all occupy the space of a high school track. Axis Chemicals isn't far away. Neither is the Cathedral.

Also, Batman gets ready to tell Vicki Vale that he's Batman because of a single date and a shared special something. It's like the plot of Sixteen Candles.

But that's really it. It gets so much right and it's so cool. How this movie stays so cool after almost 30 years can only be explained by one of two things: 1) it's enduring value in establishing rarely surpassed norms or 2) the almost shameful sheen I've let accumulate on anything that I connected to as a child that keeps edging out anything that could possibly take its place and viciously confirms my own hardened pre-critical aesthetic.

Or it might be a little bit of both. I don't know. but if I were to apply a little bit of criticism it'd be this:

-it strikes a real balance between Tim Burton's eccentricities, fan service and embodying the guts of practically ancient characters while still establishing itself as its own thing. That's a hard thing to accomplish but here it is almost 30 years later and it's a benchmark.

-Jack Nicholson can't help being Jack Nicholson in any movie he's in. The Shining and Chinatown are more Jack Nicholson in a costume that him hiding behind a character. But here it's a real meld. The Joker becomes Jack Nicholson.

-I didn't realize how much of a hill Michael Keaton had to climb in being a comedian being cast as a superhero (especially after the precedent set by Christopher Reeves) until much later in life but he pulled it off. He's strangely the most grounded character. Alfred, Comissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, Eckhart, and all of the zoot-suited henchmen from the beginning of the movie are cigar-chomping over-actors out of a Howard Hawks movie. But man does he bring it down to earth, even when he's wearing the big rubber suit.

-The Joker brings a terrifying sadism to his crimes. There are moments when it becomes scary because it starts hopping into reality. Yesterday was the first time in 28 years that I noticed that his Smilex compound came from a shelved military nerve gas experiment. I used to think the photos he cut up were just out of enjoyment. But those photos were of something horrifically real being reappropriated for his own homicidal art project. The Joker is a mix of an inborn, independent, free-flowing evil and mankind's collective capacity for evil: weaponry, chemical manipulation, creating a market for passively-observed destructive art. Again, these themes emerge naturally in the way Jack Nicholson absorbs and amalgamates those themes.

- Any film (superhero or otherwise) that deals with big themes and big relationships will suffer from the compression of time that any two hour film has to accept in order to be marketable. In a movie like this, different factors compete to reconcile with believability. Big clown balloons and cigar-chomping want to play up the kitsch. A pilgrimage to a tragic past and dinner in the kitchen want to keep things relatable.


Netflix's Daredevil was a good example of how longform storytelling can make an honest attempt to make these kind of stories a little more relatable. Criticisms aside there, it's able to achieve more realistic human relationship development than 2008's The Dark Knight possibly could. That movie's great and all but watching the effect that Bruce Wayne's relationship to Rachel had on him in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises is simply unrealistic. A couple of hours would've afforded the opportunity to see that relationship as something more than a really sweet crush on a childhood friend that ended tragically.

-The 1989 Batman changed my life.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Slayer's Undisputed Attitude - Entering Middle Age with Angry Resolve


The first time I saw Slayer was on the Diabolus in Musica tour. It was at Roseland Ballroom in NYC and Fear Factory and Kilgore Smudge opened. I was 17 and it was cool because I was the first of all my friends to see Slayer play live.

The show was the most chaotic, dangerous thing I had ever been a part of in my life up to that point. I couldn't hear for a few days afterwards. Someone got seriously injured and Tom Araya stopped the show out of concern for their safety, probably before playing Dead Skin Mask or Killing Fields. Burton Bell from Fear Factory threw me the microphone to sing part of Scapegoat.

At some point Slayer played Gemini, which was the sole original song from an album of punk covers (Undisputed Attitude). My first exposure to the album was a 15 second Quicktime movie posted by MTV that I downloaded from America Online. That short clip came up the size of a postage stamp and probably took me an afternoon to download.

Kerry King is the worst and he was in rare form in his interviews for the album and in the linear notes, doing what a lot of people who are into extreme music do when confronted with someone else's musical career and hard work: criticizing whole oeuvres by line-item and swerving someone else's personal taste into anathemas. He tore apart the bands he was paying homage to.

But maybe it was Jeff Hanneman's homage. It's clear from the linear notes and interviews from the time that he was the dude who was really into punk and hardcore. Jeff Hanneman was the Cliff Burton to Kerry King's James Hetfield, the superior taste that transcended the morass of classic rock. He really was brilliant, excursions into fascist aestheticism and memorabilia aside. I also never liked the lyrics, which is fine because I almost always ignore a band's lyrics. It's usually for the best.

Gemini was great because it had the same mid-tempo style that they used on Divine Intervention (the song) and Seasons in the Abyss (the album). It has aged better than a lot of their stuff and, as far as maturity in a metal band goes, I still think it sounds more like a step up than a step down. Live it was everything I could hope for because I actually DID spend money on Undisputed Attitude and had to skip forward on an awful lot of songs for a 33 minute album. Gemini is at the end and is a complete about-face to the rest of the album. The name of the song and the song itself sound like the "Gemini Man" level of Mega Man where everything looks like translucent Jolly Ranchers, which is to say a sort-of frosty futurism.

The album sounds desperate in both senses of the word (grasping at straws and nothing left to lose). Some of it is just too much, like the cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (renamed "I'm Gonna Be Your God") and "Can't Stand You". But some of it sounds truly angry which is a feat considering that they were in their mid-30's and, in Tom Araya's case, married with a child on the way. It's strange to think that the album was recorded while his wife was entering the third trimester of her pregnancy. His daughter was born two weeks before the album was released and undoubtedly he could no longer be the same man who recorded angry music made by young men in their teens and early-twenties.

In a way, the album is a consummate resolution to the dilemma most men face when leaving their youth: what did it mean to be old and what does it mean now that I'm there? Will my relationships be padded with conversations about sales goals and kitchen renovations? Will there be dyed hair and bad plugs? What does responsibility look like and can value systems shift without losing your identity? What does it mean to be a person of integrity? What does it mean when the kids in the audience are closer to my children's age than I am to them?

Undisputed Attitude is usually remembered by most fans as one of Slayer's worst album...without any realization that the critics themselves might trip over the same threshold that they ridiculed the band for having just crossed.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What is reality?

It's not every day that I read something that blows my mind, but today happens to be that day. A worthy read (and reread).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Being Critical of Being Critical (at least with yourself)

"The capacity to doubt herself, to abandon - albeit in the face of strong resistance - her self-assurance and self-satisfaction, lies at the heart of Europe's development as a spiritual force. She made the effort to break out of the closed confines of ethnocentricity, and her ability to do so gave definition to the unique value of her culture. Ultimately we may say that Europe's cultural identity is reinforced by her refusal to accept any kind of closed, finite definition, and thus only affirm her identity in uncertainity and anxiety."


-Leszek Kolakowski

"Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusion of Cultural Universalism" (1986)



What does it mean to be self-critical? In the Catholic tradition, we have what's called an "examination of conscience": a means of reflecting on our lives to see where we've gone wrong or to try and reconcile hard decisions with our values. It presupposes a couple things: that there is a God, that we possess a human nature, that there are ways to offend God and our own human nature, and that this rupture betrays that nature. The result of this is guilt, bad consequences, and redefinition of our own nature. To offend conscience is to recreate ourselves instead of allowing a Creator to continue to sustain His creation and to develop you in an ongoing act of creating.


This all presupposes the ability to think and reflect. Hannah Arendt defined "imagination" as the process in which we are able to dialogue with ourselves. Under that is some concept of a higher good or criteria that our actions are subservient to. To make ourselves and our own actions that highest criteria of right thinking or right action, in a sense, obliterates the dialogue because, at some level, one side of the interior dialogue is suppressed and the other is allowed to dominate. That suppressed side of the dialogue is most likely the one that doubts and criticizes actions that are (or allowed to be seen as) ambiguous.


But that act of dialogue with oneself also presupposes a few things too: a sense of self, the concept of an "other" (even if that "other" is a projection within oneself), the superiority of one view of another, and a final, binding judgment. Anxiety may come from a suspension of judgment or even the rejection of that judgment but, at some level, it presumes the validity of the idea of judgment. Even when someone is considered too critical of themselves, there is a "self" that is being judged and the resulting anxiety testifies to both the presence of an interior dialogue and an imbalance that seeks equilibrium.


When that interior dialogue is happening - so long as it actually is a dialogue - the acceptance and use of judgment, discernment, and even "otherness" presupposes something higher than the point of views, an ultimate "criterion", however elusive.


To avoid presuming a predictable conclusion for too long, this is one way to see how that the idea of an "ultimate" criterion that aids in discernment and judgment is a helpful way of understanding a tacit acceptance of the idea of "truth" that we all seem to have. Some people feel that this idea of "truth" is a useful way that our minds manage the things we think about, a sort-of silent party that allows for the possibility of a final judgment but for many others its a witness to the way God organizes our conscience and to conceptualize the reality of transcendence, that which exists beyond ourselves and our judgment.


Kolakowski's point in the quote above sees that the heritage of self-criticism is itself a sign of civilization and (to run the risk of a kind of triumphalism) is also a sign of a higher sort of civilization. As such, it's also a higher sort of humanity, a sign that something is going right and a principal for growth.


Though it's natural to avoid guilt and coming up short in examining our lives and failures, it's also "supernatural" to embrace self-examination. The tension and the anxiety is a sign that, at some level, something is going right. Better to go through it than walk past it.

Being Critical of Being Critical (at least with yourself)

"The capacity to doubt herself, to abandon - albeit in the face of strong resistance - her self-assurance and self-satisfaction, lies at the heart of Europe's development as a spiritual force. She made the effort to break out of the closed confines of ethnocentricity, and her ability to do so gave definition to the unique value of her culture. Ultimately we may say that Europe's cultural identity is reinforced by her refusal to accept any kind of closed, finite definition, and thus only affirm her identity in uncertainity and anxiety."

-Leszek Kolakowski
"Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusion of Cultural Universalism" (1986)


What does it mean to be self-critical? In the Catholic tradition, we have what's called an "examination of conscience": a means of reflecting on our lives to see where we've gone wrong or to try and reconcile hard decisions with our values. It presupposes a couple things: that there is a God, that we possess a human nature, that there are ways to offend God and our own human nature, and that this rupture betrays that nature. The result of this is guilt, bad consequences, and redefinition of our own nature. To offend conscience is to recreate ourselves instead of allowing a Creator to continue to sustain His creation and to develop you in an ongoing act of creating.

This all presupposes the ability to think and reflect. Hannah Arendt defined "thinking" as the process in which we are able to dialogue with ourselves. Under that is some concept of a higher good or criteria that our actions are subservient to. To make ourselves and our own actions that highest criteria of right thinking or right action, in a sense, obliterates the dialogue because, at some level, one side of the interior dialogue is suppressed and the other is allowed to dominate. That suppressed side of the dialogue is most likely the one that doubts and criticizes actions that are (or allowed to be seen as) ambiguous. 

But that act of dialogue with oneself also presupposes a few things too: a sense of self, the concept of an "other" (even if that "other" is a projection within oneself), the superiority of one view of another, and a final, binding judgment. Anxiety may come from a suspension of judgment or even the rejection of that judgment but, at some level, it presumes the validity of the idea of judgment.  Even when someone is considered too critical of themselves, there is a "self" that is being judged and the resulting anxiety testifies to an imbalance.

When that interior dialogue is happening - so long as it actually is a dialogue - the acceptance and use of judgment, discernment, and even "otherness" presupposes something higher than the point of views, an ultimate "criterion", however elusive. 

To avoid presuming a predictable conclusion for too long, this is one way to see how that the idea of an "ultimate" criterion that aids in discernment and judgment is a helpful way of understanding a tacit acceptance of the idea of "truth" that we all seem to have. Some people feel that this idea of "truth" is a useful way that our minds manage the things we think about, a sort-of silent party that allows for the possibility of a final judgment but for many others its a witness to the way God organizes our conscience and to conceptualize the reality of transcendence, that which exists beyond ourselves and our judgment.

Kolakowski's point in the quote above sees that the heritage of self-criticism is itself a sign of civilization and (to run the risk of a kind of triumphalism) is also a sign of a higher sort of civilization. As such, it's also a higher sort of humanity, a sign that something is going right and a principal for growth.

Though it's natural to avoid guilt and coming up short in examining our lives and failures, it's also "supernatural" to embrace self-examination. The tension and the anxiety is a sign that, at some level, something is going right. It's worth going through it than walking past it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Jesus, the quirky teacher


Luke 14:25ff

The crowd wasn't quiet because the teacher told them to hate their family.

They weren't really mad either because this guy told them to hate their family!

No one remembers what that person asked that made the teacher say something so absurd but they didn't forget his response:

"Whoever comes to me and DOESN'T hate father and mother..."

Wait, what? You could practically hear the crowd's brows furrow in their confusion...

"...DOESN'T hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters..."

Elbows started to nudge and eyes started to wink. Quick glances communicated jokes about nosey mother-in-laws, boozy wives, and lazy husbands who probably deserved a mention too. The teacher's eyes bugged out a little when he said "doesn't". It's always interesting when a storyteller is the teacher instead of having a lawyer give cases and aphorisms.

Clearly he was being absurd with his extremes. The lawyers started to get antsy with their throats starting to stutter an obligatory interruption. Already this idiot told these sheep to break a Commandment, at least by implication. That was one of the many problems with this "teacher": you could never quite pin him in breaking the law. Patience, they thought. All in good time.

The crowd, however, seemed to be understanding the message just fine. In the span of about 15 seconds they were all grins, laughter, and interest in how the punchline would pan out. Even the kids seemed to get it.

"Whoever DOESN'T hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own LIFE, cannot be my disciple!"

So this was it? Who wanted to be this guy's disciple? To the side of the teacher we're his disciples, a strange collection of men who were either rugged, ragged, or both. One of them had what was clearly fine clothing before he decided to sleep outdoors while wearing them. Another had a large sword and another was a short, barrel-chested pug of a man.

And yet...

These men sat with purpose, listening to the same things the rest of them but with greater eagerness. You could see some of them were really torn up about what they were hearing. The crowd had no idea that some of them had left wives and children at home. One of them choked back tears while he slowly nodded.

It was was hard not to see that they had something that was, well, attractive. Peace, resolve, purpose, and an odd, resigning strength. You know it when you see it. It has a little something you want without ever realizing you wanted it.

The teacher continued.

"...and whoever does not CARRY THE CROSS AND FOLLOW ME CANNOT BE MY DISCIPLE."

Silence. Then a few gasps followed by the shriek of a mother whose sons had died by crucifixion for staging an attack on Roman soldiers. Her loud, painful reminisces provided an overture to a confused, uncomfortable crowd that was starting to get mad. His disciples, who just a moment before followed the same uneasy rhythm of nodding heads as everyone else, now looked positively stoic in the tumult, quivering stones that gave the appearance of the rocks of a fortress.

As the crowd rows started to shake apart, a few people were clearly frozen in their spot and conflicted. This strange, quirky teacher had danced with them until he stopped, looked them square in the eye and laid it out...a marriage proposal paved in both pain and purpose, not a demand but a pledge.

This is it. It is what it is.